Why Apple’s Keynote keeps raising the bar when it comes to presentations – it’s all to do with why it was created in the first place.

Is the Powerpoint style of presenting on the way down?

Is the style of Powerpoint on its way down?

There’s a long running comparison between Microsoft and Apple that suggests that while Apple can turn on a dime (or sixpence if you prefer) when it comes to dealing with the changing technology landscape, Microsoft is like the Titanic, unable to chart its way through troubled waters, and make the necessary rapid diversions to avoid obstacles, foreseeable or otherwise.

It had a chance to do so with mobile phone technologies, but CEO Steve Ballmer who saw the iPhone coming laughed it out of contention and continued on his predictable path. We’ll see where the SS Microsoft navigates to in a year or two with respect to cellphone software and market share.

It’s its sister ship, SS Powerpoint (above) that I’m considering in this post. Some time back, I wrote a blog entry entitled, “Just what is it about Keynote that is changing the way people present? where I trawled through the blogosphere looking for who was using Keynote and why. I was searching for others’ notions of Keynote’s ability to elicit creativity, non-conformity and and persuasiveness in its users so as to deliver impactful messages.

Since that time, I’ve noticed (because I look for such things) an increasing number of high profile presenters overtly using Keynote. I’ll update that blog entry soon, transferring over onto this Presentation Magic blog. Just this morning, on a discussion list I subscribe to, I saw the following message:

“My employer wants me to look into taking an advanced Apple Keynote course…. Our company is looking to migrate from PowerPoint to Keynote and I am the person who will be performing all of these tasks… I’m pretty versed in Keynote, but I think I’m just at the tip of the iceberg with the program. I know it can do more.

Well yes; it can.

In my travels where I’m just speaking about presentations, much like my friend Garr Reynolds with his Presentation Zen approach, I take a platform-agnostic stance. Audiences have not come to learn about software choices. But no matter whether the audience are teachers or CEOs, they know they haven’t seen Powerpoint in action.

They see razor sharp text (usually just a big word or two per slide), megasharp pictures (no pixelation), unfamiliar themes and backgrounds which don’t compete with what’s in the foreground (the message!), movies which play flawlessly within the slide without revealing the controls, spoiling the sense of a seamless presence, and they see intriguing, enhance-the-story transitions and builds (otherwise known as animations).

It’s not that Powerpoint, the application, can’t do these effects adequately – it can. Indeed, it goes one or two better than Keynote when it comes to picture manipulation abilities, for which one needs to leave Keynote 4 and seek third party assistance, such as Photoshop. And it has better timing controls, for sound and image “ins and outs”, something sorely lacking in Keynote 4, but which I expect to be addressed in an update, utilising the timing features we’ve seen in iLife apps. such as Garageband, iMovie and iDVD.

For me, in 2008, the historical differences in the products’ DNA is becoming glaringly obvious. Powerpoint, the app., can’t seem to shake off its corporate lineage, its graduation from being an ersatz overhead transparency producer for the Mac Plus and an adjunct for sales and marketing professionals, complete with bullet point templates for outlining a widget’s selling points.

Keynote’s origins, as a medium for Steve Jobs’ keynotes, where he would display his company’s wares, came as a cinematic, narrative device. Few will disagree that a Jobs’ keynote is a keenly anticipated event, often as not letting the non-techie world know where the techie world is heading. That’s not to say Jobs usually introduces unheard-of products. But he and Apple have displayed an uncanny knack since 1997 to reinvent the familiar, and turn it into something emotionally satisfying rather than a sterile object to be endured due to an impenetrable user interface or lack of reliability.

To help persuade us of Apple’s foresight and ability to provide emotionally satisfying products and future offerings, thus building up anticipation and desirability, as we witnessed with the iPhone introduction in 2007, Jobs uses Keynote to tell stories. Even when on rare occasions it fails, he tells stories such as when he and Woz would play pranks in their dorm using Woz’s gadgets, all the while no doubt hoping that the tech. gnomes in the support area are getting things working again. Pronto!

Keynote was designed from the ground up as a story telling device in the tradition of movie making, hardly surprising given Jobs’ involvement in Hollywood. It elicits in the user, scene construction, editing facilties, and high quality graphics and sound reproduction. A great deal of thought has been put into matching its themes with default fonts and photo cutouts. The reflection and shadowing effects, which Powerpoint has now added and in some ways exceeded, allows for lifting images and text off the page, playing into the audience’s depth perception capacities it takes for granted.

The capacity of Keynote to allow for exceptional vividness and presence is one of its secret herbs and spices, all too easy to neglect when all you’re doing is preparing the next bullet point series (must remember to keep to the 7 x 7 rule – as if!), and locating brain-wearying clip art. At least Powerpoint 2008 for the Mac has eschewed clip art for high quality photo objects.

One shouldn’t underestimate the story-telling, narrative-building capacities of Keynote. More than ever, the power to weave a story arc, with its beginning – middle – end, is essential for conveying complex ideas and concepts to naive audiences. By “naive” I don’t mean willfully ignorant, but an audience who is attending in order to learn and assimilate unfamiliar concepts into their own knowledge base. In order to do so, presenters would do well to make essential assumptions of the audiences prior knowledge, and build a story, using metaphors and similes and even biographical tales.

This is where Keynote’s advanced transitions and builds help the presenter weave his or her story, sometimes applying cinema quality dissolves Powerpoint is incapable of achieving, or advanced masking controls, much like matte artists at Industrial Light and Magic.

Indeed, it’s my guess that we will see in the next Keynote update even more acknowledgement of its cinematic heritage by the inclusion of the sort of effects we have come to see in such Apple products as Final Cut and Motion.

For the past five years since its introduction, Keynote has gently added new features, starting from a fairly low base compared to the bells and whistles Powerpoint users have come to expect. Long time users had to become quite innovative and clever in their use, making up for Keynote’s feature deficits, yet capitalising on its superior visual and text qualities. In Keynote 4, Apple unleashed some of the most desired and necessary features such as motion, alpha masking and scaling.

Keynote still lacks the diversity and multiplicity of features Powerpoint boasts. But if the feedback I receive is to be relied upon, audiences certainly don’t notice the disparity. Indeed, because they so often see the same unimaginative themes and unnecessary animations in Powerpoint, the simplicity of Keynote shines through.

It does mean that Keynote users work harder to achieve these effects, using the application’s precision features. This may come as a shock to those who expect Apple products to make life easier, but this is to misunderstand the desired effect: to make the audience’s task easier in understanding the presenter’s essential points.

I was once told that an expert makes a difficult task look so easy a beginner could contemplate undertaking the task, only to discover the task’s inherent difficulty.

Helping audiences understand difficult concepts, including ones they may intially resist, requires tools which help the presenter make the difficult seem possible. Keynote’s cinematic qualities taps into the dominant medium by which we learn and are entertained simultaneously.

Powerpoint will get there too, once its users shift from its cognitive style incorporating an overabundance of the written word, and it improves its graphics abilities. We are already seeing this shift with a number of books recently published acknowledging its deficits, and helping its users achieve more, focussing on essential presentation skills. Google the names “Cliff Atkinson“; “Stephen Kosslyn” and “Rick Altman“.

But by then, Keynote will have leapt ahead, improving its audio handling abilities, and incorporating sophisticated timeline features to assist presenters’ ability to have even more precise control over the slide and its elements. As Keynote’s strengths attract more third party developers, expect some thrilling breakthroughs in presentation capabilities.

That’s what I’m looking forward to including in my Powertools workshop – I won’t be surprised to receive news of such developments in the lead up to Macworld. Plus more rumours of a Keynote 5 on the way.

Powerpoint users may console themselves that it is still the dominant knowledge transfer tool on the planet. But today more than ever given financial circumstances, it’s time to stand out from the crowd and differentiate oneself. And with Macintosh market share growing, more and more switchers will peer inside their new Macs’ Application folder and wonder what this trial iWork bundle can achieve. Some will “get it” straight away, revelling in Keynote’s comparatively simple interface, while others will wonder how they will get by with such a “minimal” set of tools. But if they persevere, use facilities like Apple’s online seminars featuring Keynote or sign up for Lynda.com self-paced tutuorials, they will ultimately come to understand why Keynote generates so much enthusiasm by its long-term users, despite its shortcomings.

Please use the comments section to share your Keynote stories, especially if you’re a switcher. You can be assured Apple’s Keynote team will be listening!

15 responses to “Why Apple’s Keynote keeps raising the bar when it comes to presentations – it’s all to do with why it was created in the first place.

  1. I just did a presentation in Keynote at our church and had several people come up to me afterwards to ask how I did it.

    Keynote just looks sharper and the transition effects are much more striking.

    That said, you could still clutter up a slide in Keynote if you wanted to just as you can in PowerPoint. For some reason though, you don’t feel the urge to do that.

  2. I used KeyNote for a class presentation in seminary, and had a similar response from classmates, who seemed awed by how good the presentation was. I think that’s the definition of good tool–one that draws you into making a superior product.

  3. I’m a big Keynote user for my classes (at UC Berkeley as well as the SF Conservatory of Music), as well as for my pre-concert lectures for the San Francisco Symphony (where I don’t use video, but control my musical examples from slides.)

    More than anything I use Keynote because I can rely on it, which is more than I could say for PowerPoint. PP would just decide all of a sudden not to do something it had done before, giving me fits during a presentation. Keynote is much more reliable, and not inclined to throw a fit of attitude when least desired or expected.

    I also prefer Keynote because of the seamless incorporation of movies (I use a lot of animations I’ve made using Motion), and the easy way that you can incorporate audio — including stuff I get from iTunes.

    And then there is also the attractiveness of the slides; I’m not obliged to arm-wrestle the application into allowing me to create a presentation which isn’t garish.

    I love the ability to use encapsulated Postscript files as graphics, allowing the graphic to be without an overt background (amazingly useful for musical examples.)

    I wouldn’t go back to PowerPoint on a bet.

  4. I used Keynote at an “Employer of Choice” retreat for my company’s regional management committee meeting, and received spontaneous applause at the end of both presentations, one to open the daylong workshop, and one to end it. It helped that I used workshop photos I’d taken just minutes before giving my closing presentation.

  5. Wow, what great stories so far! This is what the Apple developers like to hear over in Cupertino, not just wishlists for Keynote 5 (I’m working on that too, btw).

    Please keep the stories coming… I can see a “Keynote Live” convention not too far off at this rate! It would pick up a smart bunch of “Powerpoint Live” defectors who would be eager to learn how to “present different”(ly).

  6. Try using Keynote with the iPhone as clicker, running Stage Hand. It’s killer. You can stand at a podium, and never have to look back over your shoulder at your slides. The text is right there in large legible text on your iPhone. Then you can tap the iPhone for a spotlight that you can move and resize.

    A wonderful tool, that just amazes anyone who sees you use it.

  7. I always get compliments and raves over my presentations at meetings, conferences–even my students ask me how I did certain things in my class lecture slides. Unfortunately, I have to export to PowerPoint in order to use the presentations on our teaching stations, which means I lose some of the cooler transitions and effects.

    My next battle will be trying to convince the PTB to install Keynote on our lab computers so that I can do a better job of teaching my students how to tell stories in their presentations: between the way they’ve been taught in the past, and the obstacles PPT presents, it’s an uphill climb to drag them away from overloaded text and dull-yet-annoying backgrounds.

  8. I told colleagues Keynote made better presentations, but it wasn’t until they attended a Keynote presentation that they returned raving how incredible the product was.

  9. Keynote is a great presentation tool. I have people who have seen my current presentation refer to it as my “movie.”

  10. A couple of months ago I prepared a photoslide for my brother’s engagement using keynote. These days it seems everyone gets together some photos of the people in the spotlight, add some music and play it on the projector for everyone to see.

    I wanted to do one that was memorable and looked polished so I used keynote, picked the photos I wanted and then found a great song to go with it. I then painstakingly created the slide with words that appeared when the song was being played… sort of like a karaoke presentation.

    It turned out fantastic and everyone was quite impressed and a few people came up to ask how I did it. A couple of days later I was asked to assist with another photoslide in which they were due to present the next day. They were pretty heartbroken to hear that the software was only available on a Mac and that it actually took a lot longer than they thought it would to do so.

    In fact a couple of people have switched since as I did my engagement and wedding speech using keynote and upon seeing smooth and polished keynote was, they went out and bought a Mac the next day.

  11. Willis, a lot of people have been doing slide show tributes to family and friends. It started with Powerpoint “stars” in the workplace doing it friends, then when PPT became ubiquitous every one and his dog did it, except it always looked liked lame Powerpoint when I saw them. People couldn’t shift away from the cognitive style. Along comes Keynote with its cinematic qualites and all of a sudden people can see how such shows should look! So I’m not surpised you got such tremendous gratifying feedback.


  12. I’ve used Keynote to build animated scoreboard menus for our community’s junior basketball league’s season highlights DVD.

    It’s an inspiring, intuitive, and elegant tool.

    The parents and kids loved the finished product.

  13. I love Keynote. Whenever I do a presentation I always get people asking how I did it. Unfortunately for me, it always ends up running on Windows, so it’s either Powerpoint or QuickTime, neither of which can suitably preserve the quality of raw Keynote presentations.

  14. I just used keynote for a presentation during a marketing strategy class. The teacher called it “extremely professional”. Keynote somehow makes you rethink slide design. I wish the masterslides somehow represented that philosophy.

  15. Pingback: A tribute to Steve Jobs « Obhi's Blog

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